Pointing the View

’INTO our modern age there’s a point of view creeping,’ writes an earnest young person who never studied mathematics long enough to reach geometry. If a point has no dimensions, what arrangements has it for creeping? A university dean recently had a more subtle idea, suggesting a beneficent dumdum bullet. ‘There is a kind of momentum about a point of view once mastered,’ he wrote, ‘which makes it go on developing in the mind.’ ‘A fuller and more balanced point of view’ is advocated by the New York Times; and dozens of well-meaning people tell us to broaden our point of view. Points of view have so magnified their office that no one nowadays attempts to adopt views, or express views; we merely take a point of view, or a ‘concrete standpoint,’ as one journalist advises, and we rest satisfied.

Trying to find out more about these necessities of life, we learn from a freshman discussing college traditions that ‘there are viewpoints which grow up in a place,’ whereat a literal-minded listener feels himself to be surveying the campus from something very like a toadstool. Plato’s American Republic has already informed us that ‘there are many points upon which it is excellent to camp, and chief among them the nature of the good.’ So we get back to the broad point of view so frequently mentioned. It may even be broad enough, if it is the nature of the good, to serve as ‘the home stretch toward the unattained’ of which a preacher recently told us.

During the early days of the war a woman mentioned to me that she was assembling her point of view. Many others were presumably busy at the same task, and when they finished the assembling they sat down in a way calculated to hold the mosaic together and to weld its various elements beyond breaking. The other day someone told me of buttressing his point of view by careful investigation. Not yet have I heard of an upholstered point of view, but I am only waiting; already we are treating the spot like a divan. The United States, according to the Foreign Policy Association, ‘bolstered the French viewpoint’ on disarmament in May 1929, and in doing so ‘paved the way for agreement.’ Would n’t ‘carpeted’ be a better term than ‘paved,’ especially as the whole thing was ‘on the carpet’? National points of view have often ‘clashed,’ in these international parleys, and there has often developed, between two opposing points of view, ‘a great deal of friction.’

The moving points of view beloved by writers of descriptive literature do not always creep; they are so likely to run away that their owners positively need to tether them. I have read of a person who ‘pursues his point of view with no thought of others’ welfare.’ The book reviewers have a special gift of noting the strange habits of points of view. One of them says of a certain author, ‘ He brings to his present undertaking a rich and racy point of view.’ And Struthers Burt tells us that ‘to write truthfully of pots, pans, rape, and gunmen in their relationship to universal sorrow requires the objectivity of a released viewpoint.’ A shifting point of view, even with its halter dangling, is, however, an easier conception to form than that suggested in the following passage from a recent magazine article: ’ It’s all right for every man to have his own viewpoint, but the danger lies in adopting a viewpoint the way a house adopts paint — by having someone lay it on.’

Perhaps these spacious and agile points of view, defying mathematical orthodoxy in their versatile performances, harmonize after all with the newer laws of physics and mathematics. After reading a few expositions of relativity, of the latest quantum theory, and of space-time, one no longer demurs when a radio fan remarks, ’I got a new point of view this morning, listening in. Just look at the education we get through our ears!’ Thinking of the first time I heard Big Ben telling the London hour to American listeners-in, I am ready to say that one does hear a new point of view every once in a while. This is a favorable moment for physics to tell us that our everyday world is as truly four-dimensional as any Utopian playground of H. G. Wells.

But still I feel a little uneasy about these points of view on which we perch so airily. From their vantage we look at something and everything in a way that commits us to nothing. Some such notion as this must lie behind the increasing vogue of the phrase. Naturally the phrase begins to seem weak, and one advertiser has already felt moved to proclaim that he is offering ‘ values powerfully interesting from any standpoint of view.’ We are tempted to reflect that, with the multiplying of points of view, less and less is seen from them.